A sense of an ending

Twentieth Century: A History of the World 1901 to the Present

J M Roberts <em>Allen Lane, 856pp, £

We are fond of viewing history as chaos, but it is really only a mess. A wealth of evidence ruins a good story, putting so many brush strokes on the canvas that a picture can barely be discerned. Legend is the product of few accounts, history of many. The hardest task for the contemporary historian, writes J M Roberts in Twentieth Century, is to discriminate. Given the worthy attempt he makes in this book, one must allow for his modesty, but he is probably right that there is simply too much evidence to handle these days. It is understandable, therefore, that both Roberts and Martin Gilbert, in Challenge to Civilisation, should turn to the events that traditionally form the spine of a historical work. These are, once again, the battles. History as a tale of preparation for, and recovery from, the declaration of war.

The decision as to whether or not we should kill each other is more explicitly the subject of Jonathan Glover's Humanity. This is a philosopher's account of history, in which the sources are marshalled to reveal a terrible logic to the disasters and close escapes of the century. The problem with this approach is that there seems to be quite a profusion of logics at work in the events he so acutely examines. He is right that politicians and soldiers have often used their humanity as a bargaining chip to be shown or hidden in a game of self-interest. What is more questionable is the extent to which a better understanding of the rules can help. His own study of men such as Stalin shows that humanity cannot be presumed to be common ground. It also belies a selective approach to present modern technology and ideology as inevitably conspiring to keep our humanity buried. A fine book, Humanity is Glover's best and also the one he has always wanted to write, but the wider picture, though it lies outside its remit, is nonetheless an important omission.

Such histories of the century as Roberts and Gilbert have produced may seem premature at this stage, but in daring hindsight to refute them, these writers have shown good faith. The privileged position of hindsight can also be a platform for inanity. History books will always have to be written and PhD theses will always have to be submitted, and a germ of original thought is demanded of both. If these two accounts are to be overturned, then it is more likely to be from academic revisionism than a result of unforeseen world events. Whatever happens in the world, reinterpretation is inevitable. It certainly sells books. Some of our finest historians have long been writing in the service of a symmetry of words. Several of the most popular tomes of the past ten years have been products of ideas deemed too good not to be true, or at least written about. Take, for example, the view advanced that the first world war was prolonged beyond necessity because its participants enjoyed fighting so much, or the thesis that the Germans were Hitler's willing executioners. This is not to say that truth cannot be arrived at by such means. It is at least suspicious, however, that no philosopher has ever presented a theory of his own invention in which he did not also profess belief. In history anything can happen, but only in the works of historians does everything happen.

The historian can always opt to describe before he explains. The most brutish of facts, it might be said, require little in the way of interpretation. There is little time for description, however, in any reasonably comprehensive history of an entire century. Of the two, Gilbert's brings us closer to the sources, and these provide the most enjoyment and provoke the most interest. Covering Khrushchev's visit to the United States, for example, the author inserts the Russian leader's response when he was refused entry to Disneyland: "Why cannot I go to Disneyland? Do you have rocket launching-pads there?"

History in the grand sense has dominated human lives for relatively short periods even in this most historical of centuries. If it is suffering that makes history, then war lags far behind disease and other depredations. Though he lingers on conflicts, Gilbert's account retains a sense of proportion by accompanying each encounter with the number of deaths in road accidents in the same period. He notes that there have been more fatalities on the roads of Israel in the first 50 years of that nation's existence than were suffered by her armed forces in all its wars put together.

Such number crunching brings further illumination elsewhere, notably in "Mrs Thatcher Remembers", Julian Barnes's contribution to the excellent Penguin Book of Twentieth Century Essays. One thousand eight hundred Falkland Islanders were liberated from Argentina at a cost of just over 1,000 lives, 255 of them British. The victory was a great feat of arms, yet had the figures displayed similar proportions in the 1944 reinvasion of France, there would have been a toll of 23 million lives, 6 million of them Allied.

History "proper" - that is, violent history - inspires only a minority of the efforts here. Even in the uncertain days of 1941, George Orwell could write of the limits of the historical experience in "England Your England". Writing in "My War", the literary academic Paul Fussell remembers that the thought that his platoon was at least "making history" got him through his time as a terrified young officer in France. "But we didn't even do that," he adds. "Liddell Hart's 766-page history of the second world war never heard of us . . . The only satisfaction history has offered is the evidence that we caused Josef Goebbels some extra anxiety."

The essayist has only to dwell on the spirit of the moment where the historian faces the labour of documents and correspondence. The zeitgeist is a less punishing, if more dubious, historical source, but on the strength of this collection of essays, the result can present an equally faithful record of our time.

Nicholas Fearn is compiling a guide to philosophy

This article first appeared in the 06 December 1999 issue of the New Statesman, My night with Mad Frankie Fraser

Show Hide image

For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide